Top 14 Results Poor Going into Champions Cup

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From Last Word on Rugby, Joshua Bradham

Top 14 results with one week left before the European Champions cup not up to the usual French standard.

Since the Heineken Cup started pitting the best European rugby clubs against each other in 1995, France has dominated. French Top 14 results have been favorable in the competition. Racing 92 last year slipped past Leicester last year before inevitably falling to the Saracens in the finals. Currently Racing 92 is ranked eleventh in the Top 14. Their poor performance early along with Dan Carter’s injury sets Racing on a bad foot. Racing 92’s pool will also be featuring Leicester. Leicester will certainly be looking for revenge after last year’s narrow loss in the knockout round to Racing. The Pro 12 struggled in European competition, but that shouldn’t diminish from the quality of Glasgow. Glasgow was the only team in last year’s competition to Top Racing prior to the final. Playing Glasgow in Scotland may very well derail Racing’s quest this year. According to Rugby Vision the Ranking for not only Racing but all of French rugby does not France’s case well.

RC Toulon has improved, but will it be enough?

Toulon’s season started on the worst of misfires. Their home record for the first series of games was their worst home record for any season in 6 years. They have since been able to improve and climb the Top 14 table. Their mettle will be tested early in pool play, when they take on last year’s champions the Saracens. The Saracen’s have been an absolute force in both the Aviva Premiership, and the European Champion’s Cup. The Scarlet’s will most likely perform the same as last year with a perfect loss record. Sale can be strong if played at home, but on the road they struggle significantly. Expect Toulon to progress to the knockout round, but with that struggles they’ve had so far there is not much to be expected past that.

Toulouse benefit from weak pool, but have one extremely strong competitor.

Toulouse has been a roller coaster team during the first seven weeks of the season. They started off leading the table, and were the last team in the Top 14 to suffer defeat. Once they did, however, things became very bad for a while. After a 2-0 start they lost their next 3 games, including a road loss to recently permoted Lyon. Toulouse is back on the winning track, with an overall record of 4-3. We will see one more good snapshot from them before Europe, when they go on the road to meet Clermont this weekend. Toulouse’s likely success in Europe stems from the weakness of their pool. Connacht and Zebre are at or near the bottom of the Pro 12 and pose no threat whatsoever at home or away. The road. To Edinburgh is not already paved for Toulouse as they will have to go through an undefeated Wasps team that has been very impressive early on. Although likely they will move on, it is unlikely that Toulouse will top their pool.

If performance can’t take the pool, numbers should certainly help.

Last year’s Challenge Cup winners, Montpellier, look poised to take their pool. Montpellier has not had any over the top impressive performances, but have played well. Castres neither have a winning record, nor the discipline  to perform well in this year’s Champion’s cup. Castres are currently averaging a yellow card every game. Leinster has been off to a mediocre start by Leinster standards. Northampton, although looking improved from last year, still are not at the level necessary for Europe. Montpellier is the only team besides Leinster with a winning record in the pool. It has been two years since Montpellier has been to the Champions Cup, but their performance should be more than adequate.

Thanks to Clermont, All is not lost for France

Clermont seems to be the only team in the Top 14 that is actually ready for Europe. All but two teams mentioned here have winning records, but only Clermont is more than one win away from break even. They have played well at every point early this season, and look poised to be the only likely candidate for the title in all of the Top 14.

Union Bordeaux Begles started off the season with a no try win over last year’s champions, Racing 92. Their performance has been lackluster otherwise. We have seen the lack of offense that kept them from the playoffs last season. Ulster will be a surprising challenge, being one of only two undefeated teams in all of Europe. Guinness Pro 12 competition is not equal to that of the Top 14. So although Clermont has one loss they look like the significantly better team. Exeter has not looked well so far this season. They do not have a winning record, with all of those loses being to teams that are in this competition.

It is very likely that four of the eight knockout teams will be French. Unless performances change during the early stages of the Champions cup, and the intermittent Top 14 bouts. It is very unlikely that there will be progress by any of the teams besides Clermont.

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